Saudi Arabia is moving heavy military equipment including artillery to areas near its border with Yemen, US officials have said, raising the risk that the Middle East’s top oil power will be drawn into the worsening conflict.
The buildup follows an advance by Iranian-backed Houthi Shia militants who took control of the capital Sana’a in September and seized the central city of Taiz at the weekend as they move closer to the new southern base of the US-backed president, Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi.
The armour and artillery being moved by Saudi Arabia could be used for offensive or defensive purposes, two US government sources said, while two other US officials said the buildup appeared to be defensive.
One US government source described the size of the Saudi buildup on Yemen’s border as “significant” and said the Saudis could be preparing air strikes to defend Hadi if the Houthis attack his refuge in the southern seaport of Aden.
Another US official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Washington had acquired intelligence about the Saudi buildup – but there was no immediate word on the location of or size of the force deployed.
Yemeni minister urges Gulf Arab military intervention against Houthis
The conflict risks spiralling into a proxy war with Shia Iran backing the Houthis, whose leaders adhere to the Zaydi sect of Shia Islam, and Saudi Arabia and the other regional Sunni Muslim monarchies backing Hadi.
Hadi, who supported Washington’s campaign of drone strikes against a powerful al-Qaida branch based in Yemen, has been holed up in Aden with loyalist forces since he fled Sana’a in February.
Saudi Arabia faces the risk of the turmoil spilling across its porous 1,100 mile-long border with Yemen and into its Shia eastern province, where the country’s richest oil deposits lie.
Saudi Arabia’s government hosted top-level talks with Gulf Arab neighbours on Saturday that backed Hadi as Yemen’s legitimate president and offered “all efforts” to preserve the country’s stability. Saud al-Faisal, Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister, said on Monday that Arab countries would take necessary measures to protect the region against “aggression” by the Houthi movement if a peaceful solution could not be found.
A spokesman for the Saudi embassy in Washington did not immediately respond to a request for comment on any military movements.
Yemen, long on the brink of catastrophe, may have tipped over the edge
Yemen asked the UN security council on Tuesday to back military action by “willing countries” to combat Houthi militias, according to a letter from Hadi seen by Reuters. Hadi wants the 15-member body to adopt a resolution that would authorise “willing countries that wish to help Yemen to provide immediate support for the legitimate authority by all means and measures to protect Yemen and deter the Houthi aggression”.
Fighting has spread across Yemen since last September, when the Houthis seized Sana’a and advanced into Sunni Muslim areas. US officials said on Saturday that the US had evacuated all its remaining personnel in Yemen, including about 100 special operations forces, because of the security situation.